3. Introduction

The OpenPsion project is an effort to port the widely used Linux operating system to the various Psion hand held computers. Considerable success has been achieved with the Series 5MX/5MXPRO pocket computers. For the netBook, familiarity with linux is essential at this point. The kernel now offers rudimentary support for compactflash, PCMCIA, and X windows, and touch screen. There are at two prepackaged distributions (one based on dpkg and one based on ipkg) that offer are fairly complete and ready to go systems.

3.1. A Note to EPOC Users Thinking of Migrating to Linux

If you have never used linux before, this system is probably not for you. We are still at a phase where the system requires considerable technical fussing by the user to get things like networking, applications, etc. to work. This is not (yet) a user-friendly system like EPOC is; the system is essentially a linux workstation. In addition, the very nice applications in EPOC (Word, Spreadsheets, Calendars, Contacts, Time/Alarm , etc.) do not really have lightweight equivalents in linux. Linux does offer better browsers, networking, and many other things, however, and the development of linux on ARM PDA's in general is quite active, unlike EPOC.

In short, unless you are familiar with linux and know that it might work for you and you don't mind spending some time fussing with technical system stuff, migrating to linux from EPOC on your netBook is not recommended. Try linux on a desktop PC (or on one of the "live" bootable CD's) first to get some familiarity with it, if you think linux might be a way to go.

On the other hand, linux is free and it will cost you nothing to try it out (unless, of course, you pay someone to install it and fuss with it for you...) With adequate backups, the EPOC system can easily be restored like it was (I've done this many, many times without apparent harm). We may eventually get to a distribution that will be user friendly with GUI's for everything, but as of 4/05 that is likely a few years away...(and where will your netBook be then?)

A table listing linux equivalents to EPOC applications can be found on the former openpsion wiki page.

3.2. What Works, Generally

The team has ported the Linux 2.4.26 kernel to the netBook/Series 7, created ArLo (the boot loader), created several initial ramdisks (initrd), and created at least two preliminary systems for compactflash as the root disk. An effort, called "bookboot" based on proboot, now allows the netBook to boot directly to linux through an linux-customized OS.img file. Through the efforts for linux on the 5MX, a larger prepackaged distribution based on Debian Woody/Sarge has been ported to the netBook for installation on compactflash disks. In addition, an openembedded IPKG-based installation is being tailored to work on the netBook.

For the netBook, the kernel will boot up o.k. and the system will reboot back into EPOC. The compactflash support can be used to mount an e.g., ext2 partition onto which a system can be installed. Other systems and applications can be crammed into an initrd.gz file (ram disk filesystem), if one wants to avoid using a compactflash card. The kernel does have framebuffer support, but it is clear the the kernel framebuffer driver is not quite complete. However, X-windows (or PicoGUI) will work, and there is now alpha support for the touchscreen (and an external mouse using the onboard serial port (but see the mouse section in this HOWTO!) or a PCMCIA serial card works.)

Now that compactflash support is available, distributions containing all the basic elements of any linux system: bash, vi (vim), groff, less, man, perl, nawk, bc, dc, lynx (a web browser), ppp, telnet, ftp (ncftp), rsh, ssh, minicom, emacs; ("zile", a smaller emacs-type editor is probably preferred), etc. can be assembled. Starting with a basic system, it would be easy, though it would take a little time, to assemble your own custom system. All known systems are based on Debian Linux or ipk systems (Sharp zaurus, Compaq ipaq - see e.g., handhelds.org, or myzaurus.com ) since these systems have the best support for the ARM cpus. New debian arm packages (*_arm.deb, or a slimmer set of packages, *_arm.ipkg) can be downloaded and installed directly using "dpkg -i *_arm.deb", similarly for ipkg. Most people have been pleasantly surprised at how far along the whole OpenPsion project has come. OpenPsion is a fully functional, basic linux system. Slim windowing systems such as PicoGUI are being developed, and the X11 packages now work "out of the box." Most of the larger distributions, or most useful systems, are fairly sizeable and so require a compactflash card of 256MB or greater in size (a system without X could be squeezed onto a 64 MB card, and compactflash cards of up to 1GB are available and relatively inexpensive). Smaller systems based on initrd's can also be found, and they can be quite functional.

You can see a list of PCMCIA cards know to work (or not work) with the netBook at the former netBook hardware Wiki. Please feel free to add to this Wiki page if you find other hardware that works/doesn't work in your linBook.

3.3. What Doesn't Work, Specifically

The following things don't yet work on the linux netBook:

Touchscreen. A patch for touchscreen has recently been made available (10/04); it seems to work o.k., but perhaps should be considered alpha status. It is known to stop working at irregular times, requiring a reboot to reset it.

Power Control. There is at present no way to turn the linBook off, and as yet no attention has been given to power/energy management. Adequate power control will take a bit of work. For now, when you want to turn the machine off, reboot and turn off the machine at the netBook/One-Ed startup screen. Turned back on again, the machine will continue to boot to linux.

Battery Levels There is at present no way to read the energy level of the battery or backup battery, so there is no way of knowing how when your netBook will run out of power.

Sound. Someone was meant to be working on sound support, and close to posting a patch, but sound out of the linBook has never been reported.

PCMCIA. PCMCIA support is still rather crude. Many PC Card (16 bit) Cards have been reported to work, but PCMCIA support is certainly not 100%. Combined modem/ethernet, or modem cards seem to be the most problematic, e.g., ironically, Psion's own DACOM 56K/ethernet card.

LCD/X Windows. X Windows is working at the moment, but there have been to be unspecific problems with the LCD controler and X Windows. At times this manifests itself as an off color or blue screen when X windows is started, although this can be worked around by ssh'ing to the netBook from the netBook to put the terminal onto a pseudo terminal.

Infrared Serial. Infrared serial communications are not yet supported, although it seems to be almost working. This hardware is meant to be one of the easiest things to get working on the sa1100 cpu, but it still eludes us.

3.4. The netBook Specifications

Download the A4 netBook Specifications Sheet.

  1. Processor - 32 bit, Intel SA-1100 StrongARM 190 Mhz. This CPU has a 16 KB instruction cache, and an 8 KB data cache.

  2. Internal Memory - 32 MB DRAM (Series 7: 16 MB)     (32 MB DIMM expansion option for 64 MB max. memory.) (Series 7: 16 MB DIMM expansion for 32 MB max. memory.)

  3. Internal ROM - none (in EPOC, about 14 MB of RAM acts as the Z: drive ROM)

  4. Flash ROM - boot loader. (All this unconfirmed but probable). The netBook has a 16 Mb (2 MB) rewritable flash chip that stores the bootloader. The chip is a Sharp LH28F 160S 3HT-L10A (also known as: LHF16KA7). All netBooks have their eeprom flashed with the Bootloader version 11, and all MBooks with version 12; this is likely the difference between the various models (Series 7, netBook, mBook). Programs apparently exist to reflash this ROM, but few have dared...see the mail list at psilinux.org.

  5. Expandable Memory - Type I/II 3.3V. CF Card and IBM micro drive support    (disks of up to 512 MB have been tested; larger disks (to 1GB!) are untested)

  6. PCMCIA - Type I/II 3.3V. One slot for serial, modem, GSM, Ethernet and Flash ATA support [This specification is 3.3V, but 5V cards also seem to work, except perhaps in a 7Book.]

  7. Display Size, Resolution, Type - 7.7" 640x480 back-lit STN LCD Panel (VGA). (I believe the display is a Hantronix HDM6448ATSC-7)

  8. Display Type - Touch-screen, 256 colors

  9. Default OS - EPOC (32 bit, multitasking)

  10. Serial Ports - Standard RS232 and SIR Infrared; up to 115200 baud; (rumoured: IrDA 1.1, 115kbit/sec and 4Mbit/sec) The standard rs232 port is provided by a Maxim 78266 - and from what has been discovered, this chip was created specifically for Psion. However, it appears to be identical to a Maxim MAX3243-RS chip. A pdf file of the MAX3243 specifications can be found HERE. The document explicitly states that the chip supports a mouse, but there has as yet been only one verification that this works (and the serial chip survived; no serial port burn outs have ever been reported). What we know about the 78266 chip is HERE. The Psion serial cable is a null modem cable, so that it allows direct connection to the PC. This means that to use any external serial devices (e.g., modem, GPS), a null-modem adapter is needed to "un-null" the Psion cable.

  11. Power - Li-Ion battery pack, up to 10 hours, backed up by a CR2032 lithium battery    Charge status and alerts LED's    Approx. 8 hrs of operation. Optional 15.5V, 1.5A external power    (RadioShack Adaptaplug "C", 4.75mm OD, 1.75mm ID, 1cm long)    Battery is a rechargeable 11.1 volt, 1500mA pack containing three CGR18650H Li-Ion cells.

  12. Sound - 12 bit, built in speaker

  13. Microphone - yes

  14. Keyboard - 84 key, QWERTY layout

  15. Size - 235x 182 x 37 mm

  16. Weight - System incl. battery pack 1150g

  17. Operating Temperature - 0 to 50 C

  18. Shock - Designed to withstand a 1m drop onto a wooden surface

  19. Electronic Emissions - EN55022 Class B. FCC Part 15 Class B.

  20. IP Rating - IP30

3.5. The Booting Problem

There appear to be two basic approaches to booting a linux kernel. One is through ArLo which boots linux from a running EPOC system. The other is by making an image file similar to Psion's OS.img. A program called "bookboot" has been developed for the netBook to assemble OS.img files for booting linux; bookboot was based on proboot, developed for the 5MX-Pro. There are sections on both of these approaches in this HOWTO. Bookboot is used for the netBook to create a OS.img file from a working linux kernel and small initrd. This file is then put on a compactflash disk, where it is loaded in by the EEPROM on the netBook at initial boot up. That is, it loads in this file rather than the usual EPOC kernel. Note that the DOS partition on which this file resides has to be set to be bootable. Bookboot for the netbook could still use some polishing; but it looks like most of the main difficulties have been resolved. Bookboot seems to be quite functional; you can find the latest version of bookboot at bookboot.

3.6. Malaysian netBooks

A crop of a few thousand netBook's became available in late 2002 after an education company (OneEd.com) went bankrupt. These were (are?) cheap netBooks that apparently have the identical hardware capabilities of an ordinary netBook. They appear to have a slightly different bootloader on them so that booting up upgrades to the EPOC operating system has not worked. Presumably, replacing the bootloader, which is located as a small bit of ROM on the 16 MB DIMM (also known as a "personality module") with a normal netBook DIMM would make these machines identical to a normal netBook. See a description of these at E. Hasbrouck's Malaybook Site.

Insofar as linux booting from ArLo or bookboot, however, these malayBooks (or mbooks or Mnetbooks or etc.) are no different than any other netBook. Linux works on them just as well as ordinary netBooks, which they are except for the small software change (properties unknown) to the EPOC bootloader. OS.img files made using bookboot do not have to be tailored for the several variety of netBooks.